Why Do We Have Restaurant Week?

August 12, 2009

restaurant week

I’ve been a fan of Restaurant Week, where restaurants in a city come together to offer low-priced three-course lunches and dinners once or twice a year.  My history may be a little weak, but I believe Restaurant Week started in New York City in the mid-80s, where Danny Meyer and others offered special lunch prices to entice diners to try their restaurants.  In particular, over the years, Meyer’s restaurants allowed diners to order off the regular menu at dramatically discounted prices.  I remember going to lunch at Eleven Madison Park (which just got a 4th star from the NY Times), having three  incredible dishes, and paying only 20 bucks for that pleasure.  Moreover, we received some chocolates to take home and a 20 dollar gift certificate for any subsequent meal at EMP.  This was just one example of what Danny Meyer did to make a lasting impression with his guests, and that was pretty much the theme of Restaurant Week.

Well, beginning on August 24, downtown Raleigh will be having its own Restaurant Week, and after looking at the menus, my primary thought is, “How the hell is this a good value proposition?”  Let me give you an example.  For $30, you can go to the Irregardless Cafe and get a 3-course meal.  Let’s say you’re a vegetarian, so based on the Irregardless Restaurant Week menu selections, you could order hummus, the portabella polenta, and the blackberry and peach crisp.  Sounds pretty good and not entirely unreasonable for the $30.  But if you went to Irregardless tonight (see their menu here), you could get that hummus for $5 and the portabella polenta for $13.  That’s 18 bucks.  Unless their desserts typically cost more than $12, you end up spending MORE money during Restaurant Week.  WTF?????  Even if you went with the higher priced items, such as the Greek Salad at $7 and the small plate surf & turf at $16, the dessert would have to be more than 7 bucks to make Restaurant Week a good value.  That’s not what Restaurant Week should be about.

The Irregardless Cafe isn’t the only one guilty of this transgression.  From what I could ascertain, Duck & Dumpling and 42nd St. Oyster Bar have similar pricing issues.

Another problem I have is when the Restaurant Week menu is not just limited, but it offers no choices whatsoever.  Examples include 18 Seaboard (at least they’re only charging $20), Second Empire (where grilled salmon is the only entree), 518 West, and Humble Pie (although they do offer separate $20 and $30 menus).  Many other places offer no more than two choices for each course.

Then there’s a place like The Mint, which has a daily $30 menu, so the RW menu is nothing special at all.

Who gets it right?  Well, Posta Tuscan Grille has some interesting choices, and seeing they typically charge 30 bucks for their baked sea bass, which is on the RW menu (although portion sizes may be smaller, which is OK with me), this is a great deal.   Red Room might have the best values with their $20 menu.  You’ll save at least ten dollars going to Sono during Restaurant Week.  The Big Easy offers 11 different entrees for RW, and with them charging only 20 bucks for their three courses, there are some definite bargains to be found.  Solas could be a solid value, depending on what you order.

Jibarra and Bogart’s don’t give you a lot of choices, but they’re charging only $20, which would save you some money.

A place like Caffe Luna handles this week a bit differently, where the entrees offered are not typically on their menu, and at $20, this will inevitably be a better value than a regular visit.

In the end, my primary question is this: Why do we have Restaurant Week?  I thought it was a mechanism to get people to try restaurants. Yes, it puts a hurt on profit margins, but this is an investment in the future success of each establishment.  Build up some goodwill during Restaurant Week, and if you do it well, then you’ll establish some new loyal customers.  Unfortunately, too many restaurants treat Restaurant Week like a big burden, and if that’s the case, they shouldn’t participate.


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